Living Out the Third Choice

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (A), February 12, 2014
Rev. Brian HendersonPastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA

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Our Gospel lesson declares a wonderful truth… “You are the salt of the earth… and “You are the light of the world.”  Who is?  You dear Christians, each and everyone of you who Christ has redeemed and washed clean in the waters of baptism.  How do you know that this is true?  Because you are living out God’s choice… the way He has chosen for you.

There are other choices you can live by, two of them to be exact, but they will not enable you to be salt and light for a decaying world darkened by sin.  Let’s look at those two choices first, and then we will look at God’s third choice.

On our own, when confronted with God’s demand of perfection we could, and many do as a matter of fact, minimize our sinfulness and say we’re doing our best.  But I’m afraid that our best, your best isn’t good enough.  “Oh yeah?  Who says?!”  Well, God says of course, within His Holy Law.  You see, the 10 Commandments aren’t the “10 Suggestions” or “10 Ideals;”  They are God’s commandments.  In other words, they are nonnegotiable; YOU MUST DO THEM TO LIVE!

Sinful, human tendency, our tendency when confronted by the harsh demands of God’s holy law is to negotiate with God; to point to the “good things” we’ve done in hopes that they will tip the balance of some divine scale in our favor.  This kind of choice is what Jesus called self-righteousness.  It’s the kind of false righteousness that the world celebrates but God deplores.  It’s the kind of righteousness that demands that God take notice of the good and religious things it does; its as if it is saying “Listen to me God!  Look at all I’ve done and take notice!” And to this, God hears and He has responded.  Listen to His answer in our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 58:3-9a): “Is not this the fast (the religion) that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?  Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness”. [Vs. 6-9]

So there is your answer from God.  He is saying, don’t tell me to notice you and the things you do, because that is exactly what I will do.  I have looked, I have taken notice and not only do I see the sinful things you do but I also see the things you have failed to do.

So now we see that we can’t get away from our sinfulness; we can’t deflect the harsh demand of God’s law and think that we can please Him by our “good deeds.”  So what are we to do?  And this question leads us to our second choice, which is…

Despair.  Thefreedictionary.com online, defines despair this way: To loose all hope; to be overcome by a sense of futility or defeat; a complete loss of hope.  The church has always defined despair as a complete abandonment of all hope of saving one’s soul and of having the means required towards that salvation.  It isn’t a passive state of mind, but rather it involves a positive act of the will where a person deliberately gives up any hope of ever pleasing God or attaining eternal life with Him.

A famous poem made movie, and even cartoon is that work of Dante Alighieri’s 14th Century work now known as Dante’s Inferno.  The poem takes place on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week when Dante finds himself on a journey into hell itself.  As Dante and his guide were entering Hell, they see an inscription on the gate of Hell, which says, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  What is despair?  That condition of a person’s soul, which is consumed with the reality that all hope of being at peace with God is gone!  So on our own, it seems we only have two choices: self-righteousness that God says always fall short of his perfection, or despair.

But God says that both of these choices are false choices; that is, they are not God’s choice for you.  God’s will for you is that when confronted with your sin, your self-righteousness and despair you would turn to Him for forgiveness of sins, and then allow Him to transform your heart into a new heart that is loving, humble, generous, and kind.  And that transformation can only come when the Spirit of God works within it and provides God’s grace.  God’s grace… that is His undeserved forgiving love and kindness, which comes only through God’s choice, our third choice, Jesus Christ!

In or gospel reading, Jesus says this about the holy and perfect law of God, which many wish did not exist because of its impossible demands: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”  You see Jesus is our third choice, because only the perfect Son of God had the ability to fulfill all of God’s Word completely and perfectly.  But He did not fulfill them for Himself; He did it for you!  He fulfilled them so that you would have a new kind of righteousness to exchange with your sinful self-righteousness.  He gives to you His own righteousness.

In your baptism God gave you the fruits of Christ’s own cross.  One of those fruits is the righteousness of Christ.  But He also gave you another fruit, which is the promise that He would never leave nor forsake you.  He promised that no one could snatch you out of God’s hand of salvation.  In other words, you don’t have to worry about abandoning all hope; you do not need to despair.  Why?  Because as Jesus hung upon the cross He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Mark 15:34]  Jesus experienced complete abandonment from God for you so that you never would.  He experienced it so that you need not ever despair.

So now, this very morning God has given you this third choice.  So what does this mean?  It means that we should fear and love God so that we continue to allow His Word to expose our hypocrisy and our audacity to think that we could earn His forgiveness and blessing, and then turn to and cling to His only choice, our third choice Jesus Christ.  It means that we will turn to that third choice as our only choice and allow it to transform how we live our lives.  By faith we commit ourselves with the help of God to trust in Him alone to provide all of life’s blessings that will influence how we live.  In other words we will speak as God speaks and not as the world desires.  Our words will be salt to a dying world, even though the world would rather have us be honey.  We will not simply go along with the latest sinful trend simply to avoid discomfort in this life.  But we will also be light in a dark world.  How?  By allowing God to both capture our hearts and then motivate our minds to do the good things that God calls true religion.

In verses 6 and 7 of our Old Testament reading, we are given an impressive list of what God calls true religion.  On our own, this list can seem overwhelming and even impossible; after all we are just one little light!  But God tells us not to despair, that is don’t hide your light under a basket, but put it on a stand, and let it shine so that others will see your good works and give glory not to you, but to your Father in Heaven.  And remember, you are not a lone ranger Christian; you are not alone.  You are part of the church that is, the body of Christ Himself.  Or as Jesus said, “You are a city on a hill, (and you the church) can not be hidden.”

The church collectively can fight to loosen the bonds of the devil and free those trapped in sin.  The church can bring both physical bread and spiritual bread to the hungry and thirsty, especially those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  We do this as we are being salt and light.

At a Bible study one day, some young people were discussing what it means to be “the salt of the earth.” One young person observed that “Salt creates flavor.” Another observed that “Salt preserves things from decay.” But then a young Chinese Christian exchange student spoke out of an experience none of the others had thought of. She said, “Salt creates thirst.” There was a sudden hush in the room, because all of those young people were thinking: “Have I ever made anyone thirsty for the Lord Jesus Christ?”

How do we help people thirst for God?  We can’t on our own, but God can if we continue to live lives of faith and repentance, the very thing we were baptized to do.  We can if we demonstrate a trust in His Word even when things seem hopeless.  And when our little bit of salt and our little bit of light draws the attention of others, we can invite them to that city on a hill, our own little church and allow God’s Word to invite them to live out along with us, God’s third choice… eternal life through Jesus Christ!   I pray this for each of you, and this city on a hill, and I ask this in Jesus name… Amen!

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